Sunday, March 29, 2009


Year: 2008
Director: Pierre Morel
Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen

There is a moral lesson at the end of this action film: don't mess with the daughter of a man who has no limits to what he does.

Taken (not to be confused with the sci-fi miniseries by Steven Spielberg) stars Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills, a former government spy who tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who is now under the care of his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and her new husband Stuart (Xander Berkeley). His job cost him his marriage, so he has retired to spend more time with his daughter, even though Lenore isn't keen on the idea.

One day, Kim asks for Bryan's permission to follow a friend to Paris on vacation. Bryan is reluctant, but finally agrees. Trouble begins when Kim and her friend get kidnapped by a prostitution ring shortly after they arrive. Now Bryan has to put all his skills as a spy into play to save his daughter.

And here's where the action takes off. What I like about it is that it doesn't waste time with non-essential drama. If you look at the Bourne films, you'll notice all the time it takes to explore Bourne's psyche, to explain his motivation as well as the villains' reasons for their actions. Here, it's relatively simple. A father, enraged with a tragedy that befalls his daughter, flies to a foreign country and wastes no time tearing it down to find her. It doesn't bother too much with his estranged and distanced connections with his ex-wife, or his daughter. It does take a few moments to display the determination in Bryan's character as he follows one lead after another after another to get to Kim, and that is enough.

Director Pierre Morel, relatively new to directing (he was mostly a cinematographer prior to this), does a splendid job in keeping the pace tight, so there is nary a dull moment in the film. Even the actors he chose, from Neeson to the supporting cast of near faceless bad guys are spot on. Neeson for one is an awesome choice in casting. He finally gets to be the main protagonist instead of always being a mentor, and boy does he deliver. He excels in the fight scenes, and as one reviewer puts it, gets to be Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, John McClane and The Transporter's Frank Martin all in one film. I totally respect the guy now, especially when he uses all kinds of tactics to get information, including shooting a friend's wife in the arm!

Maggie Grace on the other hand gets to play the annoying 17 year old Kim, when in reality she is 25. But that's OK, Grace has her youthful looks as an advantage, and she puts it to good use here. Janssen has very little to do here other than cry and be the distraught mother. I miss seeing her as Jean Grey.

As for the it is awesome and brutal and totally in-your-face. It's not as violent as Watchmen, but it doesn't have to be. It's the kind of action you'd expect if you've seen The Transporter films, since Taken was written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. You'll see lots of hand-to-hand combat, gunfire and a couple of edge-of-your-seat car chases. All well executed.

This is one film to put next to The Patriot for extreme Father's Day films. And I mean that in a good way. Go see this. Really. (4/5)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun Li

Year: 2009
Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Cast: Kristin Kreuk, Chris Klein, Neal McDonough, Michael Clark Duncan, Robin Shou, Moon Bloodgood

Isn't Kristin Kreuk amazing? She can play an all American girl who falls for Clark Kent in Smallville, play a Pakistani girl who gets involved in a forbidden romance with a Sikh man in Partition, and now she is a Chinese girl out to rescue her father from ruthless mobsters in Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun Li.

She's actually half Dutch and half Chinese, yet she has played different ethnic types from her own, until now. Thanks to her exotic looks, it seems she can look like anyone. Pretty neat huh? This time though, she gets to play an action heroine. Does she pull it off?

This film is based on the world famous Street Fighter video game, which I still remember playing to death back when I was still a schoolboy. It was the craze at the arcade then. Chun Li, the titular character, is but one of the many characters in the video game that has captivated millions of fans to this day.

So the film begins with Chun Li narrating her life story, of how she had wanted to be a concert pianist, but ended up spending time learning martial arts from her father as she grew up. One night, when she was 10 years old, a gang of criminals led by Bison (Neal McDonough) kidnapped her father. We then move to present day, where Chun Li, now grown up, plays the piano and looks after her ailing mother. When her mother eventually passes on, Chun Li begins a journey to find her father, by finding a man named Gen (Robin Shou). Gen turns out to be the leader of a group of rebels who pledge to help the weak by fighting Bison and his gang.

Meanwhile, an Interpol agent called Charlie Nash (Chris Klein) arrives in Bangkok to find Bison. He teams up with local cop Maya Sunee (Moon Bloodgood) to track Bison, and they learn of his plan to take over the slums of Bangkok by removing all the major crime lords in the city.

Director Andrzej Bartkowiak, who has made a name for himself making action flicks by mixing Oriental elements with black gangsters (Exit Wounds, Romeo Must Die, Cradle 2 The Grave), takes the helm here. And the usual quick cut, multiple camera style he utilised in his previous films is present here. But after a while, this method becomes less of a tool and more of a hindrance, as it gets harder to see who's kicking where since he cuts real quick before anyone can register the action.

But he does get some credit for authenticity. The streets of Bangkok were well filmed, and the locals well used to depict life on the streets there. However the feeling gets slightly spoilt by dressing Chun Li a little too well as she tries to adapt to the environment in Bangkok. What's with the short outfits and sneakers they made Kreuk wear? I think that would only make her look rich rather than blend with the crowd.

And what about Kreuk? Well, I'll have to admit I have a soft spot for her. I do like her a lot, despite being aware that her acting is just mediocre. As Lana Lang on Smallville, it's easy to relate to her. But as a Chinese speaking girl trying to find her dad and coping with the grief that comes with her journey? I can only say that she does an okay job. She does excel in the fight scenes, it definitely showcases a darker side of her. But Kreuk tends to overact when put in a dramatic scene, which is a pity since the dramatic scenes are the ones that should matter the most in highlighting her character.

Chris Klein.....good God this guy is awful. His acting was horrific! I mean, it's not the first time I've seen him in a film, but man was he terrible here. McDonough surely looks the part as chief bad guy Bison, but some of his lines are just laughable, like it was lifted out of the textbook for cheesy villain speeches. Michael Clark Duncan, Oscar nominee, somehow ends up doing a film that most people would consider B-grade. There's no John Coffey here, only the big brute muscleman ala The Kingpin, which is a waste of his talent. And what the hell is Taboo from The Black-Eyed Peas doing in here??? Playing Vega??? His screen time must have been under 5 minutes long. And the guy can't even look the part, much less fight like the character from the video game. Taboo is the biggest mistake of the entire film. Oh, and Robin Shou. His acting hasn't improved much from his Mortal Kombat days, I'm afraid.

So is there anything to salvage from a poorly cinematographed, badly acted film? Well, yes. The fight scenes aren't too shabby. Dion Lam, who helped choreographed the action in The Matrix sequels, does a decent job here. Some pretty neat moves from Kreuk are impressive to watch, and you'll get to see Chun Li's patented helicopter kick too.

But at the end of the day, this film is only average entertainment at best. I'd recommend it for fans of Kristin Kreuk who want to see her kick ass. If you want a stellar action film, try something else. (3/5)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Year: 2009
Director: Zack Snyder
Cast: Jackie Earle Haley, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Malin Akerman

If you're a movie buff and you hear the title Watchmen, then chances are you would have already heard all the buzz surrounding this film. The time it took to make this film. The writer of the Watchmen graphic novel blasting the idea of adapting his work. The legal disputes between rival studios on who gets to distribute the picture. The list goes on. But after much ado about nothing and everything, Watchmen the film finally makes it to theatres.

The graphic novel upon which this film is based has received huge critical acclaim, and is even on Time Magazine's Top 100 Greatest Novels. It's a superhero comicbook that defies the conventional comicbook so much, calling it a superhero comicbook is mostly inaccurate. It's complex and full of subplots and layers of ideas which pretty much rendered this book unfilmable, until now.

Let's start with the story. Watchmen is set in the year 1985, but the world is very different as we know it. Nixon is still President of the United States, thanks to the fact that the USA won the Vietnam War, and the Cold War has prolonged up the point that the States and the USSR are now on the brink of nuclear war. In this world, costumed heroes saving the day was the norm, until a law called the Keene Act was passed, banning superheroes from carrying out their activities. The government kept a few under their employ while the others either went underground or retired.

The film begins with the brutal murder of Edward Blake @ The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). His former teammate Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) suspects a conspiracy to wipe out former heroes is afoot. He proceeds to warn another former teammate, Dan Dreiberg @ Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson). Dreiberg has retired his costume but secretly longs to go back to crimefighting. Soon the warnings go out to their other comrades: Adrian Veidt @ Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), former hero turned billionaire who is also the smartest man in the world; Laurie Jupiter @ Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), a young woman resentful of her mother but does her best to emulate her as a superhero; and Dr Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the only hero with real powers. Formerly known as Jon Osterman, he has now become a glowing blue entity thanks to a freak accident, and now he has the omnipotent ability to manipulate matter, create copies of himself, increase his size and teleport.

Rorschach digs deeper and after following up some leads, gets framed for murder and thrown in jail. Then an assassination attempt is made on Veidt's life. Finally, when Dr Manhattan gets some bad publicity in regards to his past, forcing him to run away from Earth, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre put on their costumes again and set out to solve the mystery, starting with breaking Rorschach out of prison.

But that's just the main plot. Watchmen is actually a series of plots and subplots put together, with plenty of background focus on the main players. Director Zack Snyder takes some time to explore these, such as The Comedian's past, how he is remembered personally by each Watchman, his connection to Silk Spectre and his brash, violent attitude towards everyone. There is also a love triangle between Nite Owl, Silk Spectre and Dr Manhattan thrown in. Then there's the origin of Dr Manhattan and Rorschach being explored. Snyder takes all of these elements, throws them into his film and comes up with a long tale that lasts 2 hours 40 minutes.

But the question is, does it work? Oh yes. It does. Snyder knew he had a huge responsibility to be as faithful to the novel as possible, so he made sure his film is as thorough as it should be. Thanks to screenwriters David Hayter (X2) and Alex Tse, Snyder achieves just that. Watchmen isn't just a plot, it's a character piece, and you'll see how each character plays an important part in the film as a whole. Kudos also to Snyder for not setting the film in modern times and changing things to suit mainstream movie expectations. It's set in the 80s, so you'll see 80s type fashion and hairstyles, and even the soundtrack is retro. But the most important move he made to ensure his film worked was to hire relatively unknown actors who can deliver great performances.

Out of the cast, it is Jackie Earle Haley who will be remembered the most. His Rorschach is the unsung hero of the film, driven by his need for justice, though he is a flawed character who is considered paranoid and violent by most people around him. In the end, Haley succeeds in getting the audience's sympathy for his role. Patrick Wilson is also splendid as Nite Owl, the guy who is probably the only one that hasn't lost the true meaning of being a hero and wanting to save the world the right way. Not to be outdone is Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who gives the audience plenty of reasons to hate The Comedian, and yet makes sure that we really don't. It's as if The Comedian represents the worst in humanity, a mirror image of what we would be if left unrestricted. Matthew Goode plays Ozymandias with a cool and intellectual demeanor, and it is more effective at the end of the movie. Billy Crudup is restricted too much by the visual effect, while Malin Akerman isn't effective enough in her role. Carla Gugino lends some able support as Laurie's mother, the original Silk Spectre though.

To be fair, I think Snyder could have tried to condense the story a little bit. It tries to be a lot of things, and I know why it had to be. But this type of storytelling method may alienate the regular moviegoer who have not heard of Watchmen before walking into the theatre. Some critics have already said that this film caters more to the novel's fans, and I can see why.

Watchmen, in the end, is a whodunit, character study and morality tale all rolled into one. It's rich and intricate, yet lengthy and difficult to fathom. Whatever the case, Zack Snyder has made a fan out of me, and for that he should be praised. (4.5/5)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Reader

Year: 2008
Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin

I have heard some critics saying that there have been too many Holocaust themed films that get Oscar attention, and they were miffed that The Dark Knight was snubbed for a Best Picture consideration while this film gets a shot. Personally I'm on the fence on that matter. I think at some point, blockbuster type films should get some awards attention beyond the technical kind, yet heavy drama such as The Reader or The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button or Frost/Nixon shouldn't be left out either. I say, keep things balanced.

But that's for another day to talk about. This past afternoon I walked into the cinema to see the film that granted Kate Winslet the long elusive Oscar for Best Actress. In The Reader, Winslet plays Hanna, a woman who has an affair with a young boy she finds puking all over himself outside her flat in 1958 Berlin.

The boy, Michael (David Kross) finds her attractive at first sight and frequently goes to her flat to have sex with her. He also spends his time there reading to her the books he brings from school. Their relationship, which initially looks like it is based on lust, has its ups and downs, but it survives all summer.

Then one day, Hanna moves away without warning, and Michael is left wondering why. Eight years later, he goes to law school, and gets chosen to be in a special group that follows their lecturer to the courthouse to witness a trial. The trial that Michael attends firsthand is for war crimes during the Holocaust, where he finds to his dismay that Hanna is one of the defendants. He is even more distressed to see Hanna willingly take the fall for her actions even though she is not solely responsible for the crimes.

For dramas like this, you'd expect it to be slow and draggy. And it does feel that way a lot, but the subject matter and the splendid performances will draw you in. Director Stephen Daldry could have done better on the sequencing of events though. He uses Ralph Fiennes playing the older Michael remembering in flashbacks to tell the story, and the constant flips back and forth through time is distracting.

Thankfully, the film's two main stars deliver. Winslet is magnetic as Hanna, a woman who manages to get our sympathy despite being rather insensitive not only regarding her war crimes but the way she treats Michael occasionally as well. By the time you see her serving her last days in prison, you can't help but feel sorry for her. Kross plays the younger Michael with plenty of youth and emotion. Initially I thought he looked like a silly kid but he gradually gets better as the film progresses. Lena Olin also shines in the few scenes she gets as a Holocaust survivor testifying against Hanna.

In my opinion, The Reader succeeds in delivering a heartfelt movie about love, loss and forgiveness. And the amount of time spent by Daldry filming Kross and Fiennes reading books out loud might even make you want to pick up a book. Recommended. (4/5)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Burn After Reading

Year: 2008
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins

I'm probably the only movie fan in the world that's not familiar with the Coen brothers' work. I am aware that they are well known for making quirky and dark films, one of which won them multiple Oscars last year. No Country For Old Men is not readily understandable but it stands on its own as a tour de force of a film. But most people who can appreciate the Coens' work would probably give Burn After Reading the thumbs up.

So let me try my best to tell you about this little movie that the Coens wrote while they were working on No Country. Burn After Reading begins at the CIA headquarters, where senior analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) has been unceremoniously demoted by his superiors. Dissatisfied with his demotion, Osbourne proceeds to write his memoirs and experiences with the CIA, all the while struggling to keep his marriage from falling apart.

Then his memoirs, which is kept on digital CD, somehow end up in the hands of two unscrupulous gym employees, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Chad, thinking that the information on the disc is sensitive, teams up with Linda to blackmail Osbourne for money. Linda especially pushes for the plan because she is obsessed about undergoing plastic surgery to look beautiful, and the money would help pay for it. Meanwhile, Linda is also desperately seeking the right man, and strikes up a relationship with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a Treasury Department agent who is not only married, but is also a serial philanderer who happens to be having an affair with Osbourne's wife Katie (Tilda Swinton).

All these people and the gym manager, Ted (Richard Jenkins) cross each other's paths and things go from silly to bad to worse, and ultimately destructive. But it's supposed to be funny.

Unlike No Country For Old Men, the Coens turn the darkness into one big weird film about how stupid some people can be, and how it can get worse from there. The script isn't exactly sharp from beginning to end, but it manages to entertain to a certain level.

The cast perform well overall, but the standout actor is Pitt, who makes Chad the only likeable character in the film. I mean, have you ever went to the gym and seen big muscular guys with big hair who look like studs but talk like they have nothing upstairs? Pitt is THAT guy, only not so big. It's amazing how he can play against type so perfectly.

The film's downside is that it doesn't have that many laugh inducing moments, at least not for me. I know it's meant to be a dark comedy, but it can do just a tad more with being funny than being weird. Maybe it would help if the Coens made the characters more likeable, or at least have an outstanding quality of some kind. But then again, what do I know about the Coen brothers' work?

Perhaps I should go watch The Big Lebowski. Someone said it was funny. It's probably better than this film. (3/5)

Sunday, March 08, 2009


Year: 2008
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

Oscar season is long over, but my reviews on Oscar films continue, and this week it's Doubt. Doubt is based on the play of the same name by John Patrick Shanley, who also directs this film.

Set in 1964, a year after Kennedy was assassinated, Doubt focuses on the goings-on in St. Nicholas school, which is connected to the local church. The school is run by Sister Aloysius, a nun who is headstrong, old-fashioned and very dictator-like in her actions.

The church is overseen by Father Flynn, who is in contrast a kind and open minded man, though seemingly mysterious as he is gregarious. His methods are not always parallel to Sister Aloysius', but they run things well enough with the other nuns.

Then one day, a black student, Donald Miller, who by the way is the only black student in the school, returns to his class in tears after a visit to Father Flynn's chambers. His teacher, Sister James suspects something amiss and mentions it to Sister Aloysius, who in turn decides to take it up with Father Flynn. Flynn denies anything out of the ordinary happening at first, but after much persuasion by Aloysius, relents and gives his explanation, much to his displeasure.

The problem is, Aloysius isn't satisfied. She isn't at all convinced that Flynn spoke the truth and makes it her mission to remove him from his position. Despite not having any evidence to support her suspicions, she presses on, even to the point of meeting Donald's mother to tell her about the whole thing, and still moving forward even when Donald's mother doesn't share her theory.

This film is primarily reliant on the cast's performance, due to the fact that it's based on a play, and it succeeds. Shanley successfully transfers his play to film and makes a very watchable and believable picture to behold. But most of the credit should be given to the actors who make it work so well.

Meryl Streep is outstanding as Sister Aloysius. I stepped into the hall thinking that she would just rehash the same type of performance she has perfected over the years in The Devil Wears Prada, Rendition and The Manchurian Candidate. But Streep takes her acting up a few notches and demonstrates what a person driven by ultimate unforgiving doubt of someone's honesty really looks like. Philip Seymour Hoffman matches her splendidly as the wise and more level-headed Father Flynn. I also perticularly enjoyed watching Amy Adams as Sister James, who is torn between supporting her superior Aloysius and trusting Flynn's claims. Her feelings of uneasiness of being dragged into the whole mess is well depicted by Adams.

All I can say is that this film was better than I expected. I expected heavy drama but I got a lot more than that. If you enjoy great actors giving wonderful performances, Doubt is for you to enjoy. (4/5)

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Year: 2008
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard

This review has been long overdue, and quite frankly I don't know if I can give it a fair shot. I actually came close to dozing off while watching it last week, and not because it was so dull...well actually it was kinda dull, but I was also tired at the time. Anyway, here goes.

Valkyrie is THAT famous film Tom Cruise was trying to make in Germany that ran into a few snags because Germany wouldn't let someone who believes in Scientology film there. But he and Bryan Singer finally succeeded, and here we are. Set in Germany during World War II, it tells of the secret mission of a few good men amongst the Nazi to bring down Adolf Hitler.

Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a soldier disillusioned with the war and wishes to stop Hitler from continuing with his campaign. After being seriously wounded by the Allied attack in Tunisia, Stauffenberg is sent home. He's now without his left eye, right hand and a few fingers on the other hand.

Some men amongst the military are conspiring to assassinate Hitler, but their attempts are not successful. They seek new blood to organise a new plan, so they recruit Stauffenberg into their fold. Stauffenberg accepts, and begins to shape a plan, not just to kill Hitler but also to overthrow the Nazi and take over the government. He rewrites Oeration Valkyrie, a plan set by Hitler in event of his death, to suit their mission and even manages to get the Fuhrer to sign off on it. The plan is put into motion, the day is set. Do they succeed?

If you brush up on your history, then you already know the answer to that question. And therein lies the weakness of Valkyrie. You know how it ends. Despite Singer's attempts to create tension within the members of the resistance, it falls flat. It's just not enough. These men are seen bickering most of the time when they should be concerned about the consequences of their actions should they fail. Even Stauffenberg should be seen doing just that, but the focus on his relationship with his family is too short.

Performance wise, Cruise is just too dull to watch. He acts well, but there's really nothing to shout about his performance here. The British thespians, like Terence Stamp, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson fare better though.

At the end, Valkyrie is just like Zodiac or maybe The Exorcism Of Emily Rose. It's a mere history lesson, that depends on the so-called amazing true story at its core to attract, but there is no real enthusiasm in its execution. If you are a history buff, you might like it. But I am a history buff too, and I expected more. (3/5)


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